I practice yoga for a multitude of reasons. To me, it is the ultimate practice of mindfulness. When I step onto my mat, my worries slip into the background and I am reminded that I have the power to direct my attention to where it best serves me. Even if I begin with my head spinning, I soon find myself supremely concentrated on the poses I’m in. I find myself lost in my breath, briefly snapping out of my trance to think hey, I’m doing it!
Further, steady practice has transformed my body. To be honest, I didn’t realize how strong I was pre-COVID until I took a month off and restarted my practice. Doing yoga multiple times a week has allowed my body to build up muscle memory and progress to more advanced poses. Coming back onto my mat more recently, though, reminded me of yet another reason I love it: you can reap the benefits of yoga without doing advanced poses. I haven’t done a single headstand for the past couple of months and my yoga practice still feels whole without it. Simply carving out the time in my day to focus on myself and what I’m feeling is enough for me to feel a connection to this ancient practice.
Yoga is surely a significant part of my life, so occasionally it comes up in conversation. Telling others about it elicits both positive reactions and reactions based on misconceptions. If you’re reading this, you likely have an open mind about trying yoga out, even if you have some doubts. For the hesitant reader, I want to clear up some common myths:
Myth 1: You have to be flexible to do yoga.
Fact: Not at all! Yoga is designed to be accessible to anyone– short or tall, small or big, young or old. Yoga actually makes you flexible, rather than being flexible allows you to do it.
Myth 2: Yoga is just stretching. It’s not exercise.
Fact: There are many styles of yoga, and some of them can give you an amazing workout! Check out vinyasa flow, ashtanga, and Bikram yoga if you want a real sweat and next-day sore muscles. If you do want the stretch, check out yin.
Myth 3: Yoga is about getting into Instagram-worthy poses.
Fact: Yoga is about the process of connecting with yourself. The poses that you create are just exercises to get you to rely on your breath and to get yourself out of your head. True yoga happens when you focus on how you feel, rather than how you look.
How do you even go about starting your yoga practice? Choosing a style that works for you, setting an intention, and understanding breathing techniques will instantly boost the effectiveness of your time on the mat. If that sounds like too many steps, feel free to turn on a YouTube video (see my recommendations below) and just start. Here is how I begin my practice:
- Choose your style
There are many types of yoga that have developed over time to serve different purposes for the yogi. Today I will focus on my two favorite practices: yin and vinyasa. Yin is a slow-paced practice that focuses on deep stretches in the connective tissue, while vinyasa is a quicker-paced practice that links breath to movement. I recommend yin for those who seek relaxation and vinyasa for those who want to get moving. If neither of these grows on you by the end of this article, I encourage you to seek out other styles that may better suit your needs. I wholeheartedly believe that there is a yoga practice for everyone.
- Set an intention
Some people do yoga for fitness, some for relaxation, and others for mindfulness. Your intention for your practice can be whatever you want, as long as it is meaningful to you. Here are some ideas:
- I am healthy.
- I am at peace.
- I am full of joy.
- I let my thoughts fade away.
- I am present.
If you have trouble thinking of one that speaks to you, it may help to think of your intention as a goal for what you want to get out of your practice. For example, since vinyasa is great for getting your heart rate and heat up, you may want to set a goal for yourself of working up a sweat. Or alternatively, for yin, which helps relieve stress through stretches, your goal may be to calm your mind for sleep.
Once you decide on a goal, say it to yourself once in your head before you start moving. Throughout your time on the mat, allow yourself to check back in on your intention to remind yourself of why you’re there.
- Understand yoga breathing
For yin, breathing is simple: let yourself breathe in and out in your most relaxed way. For vinyasa, breathing has an extra special role in your practice. In fact, breathing in vinyasa is as essential as movement. You use a special kind of breath called ujjayi pranayama (oo-ja-yee pra-na-ya-ma), which is often translated from Sanskrit to mean “victorious breath.”
To practice ujjayi, start by breathing deeply through your nose and mouth. Take a long, deep inhale through your nose. Then, forcefully exhale through your mouth as if you were fogging up a window in front of you. Do this a few times, then try the exhale with your mouth closed. It should sound like ocean waves. My teachers like to say that if you practice this breathing correctly, you should be drenched in sweat by the end of your practice, even without intense poses.
This focus on breath is what makes yoga so unique. No other form of movement or exercise, to my knowledge, intertwines with breath so intensely. In yoga, breath is just as important as movement.
- Just get started
Often, the hardest part about trying something new is just taking the first step. If you’re even considering yoga, my recommendation is to just try it out and see how you like it! YouTube is an excellent resource for beginner yoga sequences, my favorite channel being Yoga with Adriene. Adriene posts easy-to-follow videos for any level of practice that always leave me in a better mood than I started the video with. To be honest, some of her slower-paced videos feel like you’re just rolling around on the ground in various positions, but in the best way. You end up getting spinal, hamstring, and neck stretches without even realizing it.
There’s no need for an expensive mat or athletic clothes. Just wear something comfortable and find any open space to begin!
My Yoga with Adriene recommendations for when you…
…want to follow her most-watched complete beginner video: https://youtu.be/v7AYKMP6rOE
…have some time and want to get a full-body stretch: https://youtu.be/GLy2rYHwUqY
…want a beginner vinyasa class that makes you want to try yoga again: https://youtu.be/1p-ayBIRRHs
…just want to sit on the couch but tell yourself you’re getting abs: https://youtu.be/oBu-pQG6sTY
I wish you the best as you begin your yoga journey, whether it lasts for one session or the rest of your lifetime. Namaste!